Environment, Legislature

Senate passes bill on GenX funding, gives a few breadcrumbs to DEQ

Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover County Republican (Photo: NCGA)

After an acrimonious committee meeting earlier this week, the Senate passed a drastically different version of House Bill 189 today, sharply reducing proposed funding to the Department of Environmental Quality.

HB 189 passed the Senate 27-13. The only Democrat to vote for the bill was Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County. No Republicans voted against it.

The House is expected to vote on the measure early next week.

The bill, rechristened by the Senate as the “Water Safety Act,” was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, a Wilmington Republican, as a committee substitute on Wednesday. Although it shares a couple of non-controversial provisions with the House version — data-sharing with neighboring states, a review of DEQ’s pollutant permitting process — the bill eliminated direct funding to the agency to tackle the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants in water and air.

The House version contained $1.3 million for DEQ, plus another million for the agency to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer to conduct complex water analysis. The Senate was much stingier, initially allocating no money to DEQ to do work directly related to GenX.  The $2.4 million was to be used to analyze 43 years’ worth of discharge permits and other bureaucratic duties.

Today Lee amended the bill today, allowing DEQ to use $813,000 in one-time money for temporary employees within the Division of Water Resources. Those funds are for DEQ to sample and monitor water and to chip away at its backlog of wastewater discharge permits.

Sen. Wesley Meredith of Cumberland County, home to a source of the contamination Chemours, also successfully amended the bill to include air emissions testing and analysis.

The financial winner in the Senate deal is not DEQ but the NC Collaboratory, a think tank created by Republicans in a budget bill two years ago. Led by Brad Ives, a DEQ former assistant secretary under John Skvarla, and Jeffrey Warren, a former policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger, the Collaboratory has proven adept at wrangling fiscal favors out of the legislature.

Under the Water Safety Act, the Collaboratory receives $2 million to connecting DEQ with faculty who have access to high-resolution mass spectrometers. And the Collaboratory will  recruit UNC faculty who can advise DEQ and the state health department on emerging contaminants. (The $2 million was originally subject to matching funds; now it isn’t.)

However, that group already exists in the form of the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board. Appointed by DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, the 16-member board has eight faculty from the UNC system. That includes Detlef Knappe of NC State University, who first brought the GenX contamination to DEQ’s attention. Of the remaining eight members, two are from Duke University with two more from the EPA; four have no connection to higher education but work in the environmental field.

“Rather than thinking government is answer to everything,” said Lee, lawmakers should look to UNC. “They’re on the cutting edge of this research.”

Sen. Angela Bryant said she was concerned about the bill because it showed the “same pattern of divisiveness and hostility to the governor and executive branch.” She said properly drafted legislation could “rally everyone in North Carolina around issue of clean air and clean water.”

The Water Safety Act also requires DEQ to cooperate with an EPA audit, which it already does. In fact, as Policy Watch reported this morning, the EPA sent a letter to four GOP senators stating that DEQ had successfully passed two audits conducted in 2015.

 

 

Environment, Legislature

EPA to lawmakers: Audit shows no issues with DEQ’s wastewater permitting, public water program

This is a developing story. Senators Wells, Wade, Rabon and Lee aren’t immediately available for comment because the Senate is in session.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality passed federal audits for its wastewater discharge and public water supply programs, the EPA has found. The conclusions were detailed in a Feb. 6 letter from EPA Region 4 Administrator Ones “Trey” Glenn III to four Republican state senators who had requested an audit of the agency.

The lawmakers— Sens. Mike Lee, Trudy Wade, Bill Rabon and Andy Wells — announced that they had sent a letter to EPA on Jan. 23 requesting that it review state environmental officials’ handling of the NPDES program — federal wastewater discharge permits whose authority are delegated to the states.

At the time of the last audit, in 2015, Glenn wrote, DEQ met federal rules “for informing the public about NPDES discharges.” The agency also satisfied “appropriate monitoring requirements” as well as those for “timeliness and completeness” of the permits.

 

The EPA audits state NPDES programs every five years; the next scheduled audit is in 2020.

DEQ also effectively implemented its Public Water Supervision program, the EPA wrote. Those audits occur every three years, with the next one due in 2018.

The four lawmakers had also asked the EPA several questions, including one about who can regulate substances for which there are no federal standards — like GenX.

The Clean Water Act does have jurisdiction over these compounds, Glenn wrote, because they are regulated as pollutants. A discharge of any pollutant into waters of the US is prohibited without a permit.

In their applications to the state and EPA, permit holders must also specifically disclose what they will discharge into the water. Permittees must also “report failures to submit any relevant facts or submissions of incorrect information” in their applications.

EPA determined DEQ had met its federal obligation for public participation in the enforcement of the permits. These federal rules are a “minimum,” Glenn wrote, “and states can go further in citizen involvement.

“The EPA has closely monitored actions the state has taken regarding the discovery of PFASs in the Cape Fear River, and has provided assistance to DEQ,” Glenn wrote. “We will continue to provide North Carolina with the most up-to-date guidance on public health threats posed by PFAS as new information becomes available.”

Environment, Legislature

Senators trade barbs over funding bill directing DEQ to spend $2.4 million on “busy work”

The Senate bill requires the Department of Environmental Quality to review 43 years’
worth of wastewater discharge permits — starting before Secretary Michael Regan was born.
(Photo: NC DEQ)

At a public forum earlier this month, a man from Bladen County asked state environmental and health officials a direct and desperate question: “Are we guinea pigs?” he pleaded. “I don’t want to die from GenX.”

One could not blame him, his neighbors and the thousands of residents downstream in Brunswick and New Hanover counties for wondering if they are also subjects of a political experiment.

Many lawmakers have underscored the “urgency” of dealing with an aptly described “public health crisis.” However, in terms of concrete legislation, the intent behind — and effectiveness of —  the bills to address the crisis are more akin to extinguishing a five-alarm fire, one glass of water at a time.

The latest glass of water arrived in the form of a Senate bill, publicly unveiled at 10:45 Tuesday evening and discussed at yesterday’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting. It is a proposed substitute for the House version, which appropriated $2.3 million to the NC Department of Environmental Quality in part, to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer to specifically sample and analyze drinking and surface water for emerging contaminants. There were other bureaucratic requirements, too, but the guts of the House bill was the directive that DEQ use the money and the machine to figure out what’s in the water and how to remove it.

The Senate version, though, dilutes its House counterpart. It rehashes work that’s already in progress and requires state officials to perform bureaucratic tasks torn from the pages of a Franz Kafka novel.

Yes, DEQ would receive $2.4 million. But that money, as Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat representing six eastern counties, noted angrily at a committee meeting yesterday is for “busy work.”

If the bill becomes law, DEQ will indeed be busy: Reviewing the last 43 years of its federal wastewater permit program — known as NPDES — which is delegated to the states to administer. Forty-three years of the federal program covers eight presidential terms, 19 EPA administrators and varying rules depending on who was in charge and the state of science at the time.

Forty-three years ago, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, 41, had not been born.

Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing New Hanover County:
“I’m sorry if this schedule is too aggressive for you.”
(Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover Republican, bristled at the term “busywork.” “The contaminants have been going into the Cape Fear River for 38 years,” he said. “What are the requirements for permit disclosures? What are the processes for developing standards? Is the process thorough and timely? If those have changed over time we need to know.”

DEQ’s permit backlog — 40 percent of them are overdue for review — is well-documented. The filing and organizational systems are also outdated. And it’s true that these problems need fixed. But the bill essentially tells DEQ to pour its glass of water on a detached garage instead of the house.

“It’s a bait and switch,” Bryant remarked. “It looks like we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing”

Unlike the House version, the Senate excludes the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board — renowned scientists, including several from the UNC System, who have been working on the issue and meeting publicly since the fall. Instead, the bill redirects $2 million to the NC Policy Collaboratory, a UNC think tank created by the GOP, to essentially assemble a similar team in consultation with the state health department.

This $2 million provision, Lee said, “is a backstop plan” in the event EPA labs can no longer handle the work.

Under the original legislation creating the Collaboratory, the $2 million would have been appropriated only if the group raised matching funds. Now the money is available without that requirement. The Collaboratory’s research director is Jeffrey Warren, former policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger.

Sen. Angela Bryant: “This is a bait and switch. It looks like
we’re funding DEQ when we’re doing nothing.” (Photo: NCGA)

Sen. Berger claimed last month that DEQ has free access to of high-resolution mass spectrometers  — necessary to detecting known and unknown emerging contaminants. That’s not true. Now the Senate bill directs the Collaboratory to use its windfall on researching within the UNC system the availability of this expensive, highly sensitive equipment. and connecting those researchers with DEQ. But Brad Ives, the Collaboratory’s director, acknowledged that gaining access to the equipment in the middle of an academic year — when researchers and students are engrossed in their own work — could be challenging.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat representing Durham, Caswell and Person counties, stippled Lee with questions, leading to several sharp exchanges.

“My concern is you’re putting more delays in there and not achieving your goal,” of cleaning up the drinking water, Woodward said. “How does DEQ implement this bill? It’s not getting to the point of it.”

“I live in Wilmington, I drink the water,” Lee replied. “It’s not political. This is about getting the best people. But this can’t be resolved in one day in one session. I’m sorry if that schedule is too aggressive for you.”

Lee proposed a politically untenable challenge: “If you think $2.4 million is too much, then run an amendment and cut it.”

Funding — who gets it and for what — has dogged the legislature since last summer when Gov. Roy Cooper initially proposed $2.3 million for DEQ and DHHS to address the GenX issue. Since then the General Assembly passed an anemic bill to instead fund work by UNC Wilmington and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, the results of which not addressed the urgency of the problem.

The House unanimously passed a $2.3 million funding bill last month, largely seen as indicating at least some progress toward legitimately addressing the contamination. The Senate refused to take up the bill and went home, only to re-emerge with its committee substitute.

“Are you hearing from your constituents there is some mistrust in the legislature?” Bryant asked Lee. “In this process, we’re crippling the role of DEQ. That’s the subtext of the agenda. That’s what I’m hearing.”

“This problem spans all of the administrations. This is the best plan we can have moving forward,” Lee replied, shortly before the committee voted to send it to appropriations with a favorable report. “Constituents mistrust everybody.”

Even the guinea pigs.

Environment, Legislature

Senate Ag, Natural Resources Committee recommending $2.4 million for DEQ to address emerging contaminants

Red areas contain levels of GenX above 140 parts per trillion, the state’s provisional
health goal, in drinking water. Yellow signifies levels under 140 ppt, but still detectable.
Green is non-detect. (Map: DEQ)

The Senate, under scrutiny for failing to even confer or debate a GenX bill that unanimously passed the House, has now come up with its own version, including substantive changes.

The proposed committee substitute will be introduced at the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee tomorrow at 5 p.m. in Room 1127/1028 of the Legislative Building.

The Senate is proposing several revisions to House Bill 189, including $2.4 million in one-time money for NC Department of Environmental Quality to address GenX and other emerging contaminants in drinking water. The money comes from the unappropriated balance in the General Fund.

The Senate version also includes up to $2 million for the NC Collaboratory, split between Fiscal Years 2017–2018 and 2018–2019. The Collaboratory would use the money to hire faculty, which, with DEQ, could use high-resolution mass spectrometers within the UNC system to research these contaminants and methods of removing them from drinking water.

That money is being siphoned from a special appropriations fund within the Office of State Budget and Management, and allocated to the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees for use as matching funds by the Collaboratory.

Senators have consistently stated that DEQ has access to this specialized equipment throughout the UNC system and doesn’t need money to buy one for the agency. However, as Policy Watch reported last month, there are still fees — some of them steep — to access the equipment, and university researchers receive priority to use it. This portion of the bill appears to help alleviate the equipment access problem by bringing universities in to collaborate with DEQ.

The Department of Health and Human Services receives no extra money under the bill. Instead, DHHS is directed to work with the federal authorities and the NC Collaboratory, which will provide entrée to UNC System faculty, on the health goals for GenX and similar compounds in drinking water.

The House version of HB 189 directed DEQ to undertake several studies, including the effectiveness of its wastewater discharge permitting program. The Senate takes that directive further, requiring DEQ to study the permitting program’s effectiveness  since 1975, when the EPA delegated authority to the state to manage it. A report is due June 1.

DEQ also must cooperate with the EPA in an audit of that process, known as NPEDS permitting. The EPA already audits various DEQ operations. The two bills are listed below, annotated with their major differences. The House unanimously passed its version of HB 189 last month, but the Senate adjourned without taking it up.

Senate Version of HB 189 by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

House Version of HB 189 by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Environment, Legislature

Science says burning wood pellets is a bad idea; you’ll likely hear the opposite argument at the legislature tomorrow

Photo of wood pellets

Trees are ground into wood pellets, which are then shipped to the United Kingdom,
where they are burned for fuel. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Hunt Forest Resources, based in Youngsville, just north of Raleigh, will thin and burn, replant and spray, harvest and haul your hardwoods and pines, as the company’s website says, “to maximize your profits” and “provide you peace of mind that your timberland is appreciating.”

The state’s timber industry, worth $11 billion according to sector figures, is not only lucrative but politically powerful –so much so that the science behind timbering is conveniently ignored.

Tomorrow, some of the industry’s most powerful players, including Hunt, will appear before the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy. Lawmakers, including Republican co-chairs Rep. John Szoka and Sen. Paul Newton  are scheduled to hear a presentation tomorrow from Hunt and other timber industry representatives about the state’s market for timber and wood pellets as energy sources.

The wood pellet industry already has a foothold in North Caroina. Enviva has three plants in eastern North Carolina — Ahoskie, Faison and Garysburg — and is building a fourth in Dobbins Heights, a low-income, Black neighborhood near Hamlet. These pellets are then transported by rail to the Port of Wilmington for shipment to Europe.

Attendees will likely hear a lot of sunny pronouncements about replanting the forests, cutting trees as a method of “timber management” and other rationalizations for using wood for fuel.

But the science has shown that burning wood releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, in some cases more per unit of energy than coal. And carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change. In addition, trees store carbon dioxide; forests are known as “carbon sinks” because they retain it rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. But the very act of harvesting trees releases carbon, not just the burning of them.

Attendees tomorrow will likely hear that the industry uses predominantly waste wood and low-grade wood fiber to manufacture the pellets. But that’s not entirely true, either. With those sources nearly exhausted, industry has turned to whole trees, and not just softwoods, but also hardwoods, especially in North Carolina. These hardwood forests, some of them in sensitive wetlands, regenerate much more slowly.

As to be expected, the issue is underpinned by politics. One of tomorrow’s presenters, the NC Forestry Association, belongs to lobbying group NC Forever. As Policy Watch reported last month, NC Forever wrangles companies such as Smithfield Foods and Martin Marietta with trade groups and nonprofits, like Environmental Defense Fund and the NC Coastal Federation. NC Forever’s self-imposed charge is to advocate for funding for land conservation and water quality protection, the definitions of which are malleable in the hands of polluting industries.

And finally, if lawmakers craft wood-as-fuel legislation this year, House Bill 476 could show another aspect of its noxiousness. The bill, now law, received a lot of attention because it prohibited neighbors of hog farms from filing nuisance lawsuits for quality of life issues like noise and odor. But HB 476 places the same restrictions on neighbors of timber operations and wood pellet plants. That was not an accident.

Tomorrow’s meeting starts at 1 p.m. in Room 643; the audio is streamed.